About Silence

safetyfirst_viaJohnPayne.jpgAs usual, the debate about academic freedom spills over into public discussion. And, as usual, it loses nuance. On one side, arguments in favor of trigger warnings and safe spaces, in the service of giving voice and power the traditionally voiceless and powerless. On the other side, arguments against coddling and censoring, with the goal of protecting free academic speech.

I’ve struggled before with understanding the deeper currents in this debate. I don’t claim to have finished. I hope, like so many students and academics of late, I will continue to wrestle with this and continue to grow. And I hope equally that wrestling will be productive. There is a temptation, by some, to treat every exploration as representative, to pretend that some students forcing the cancellation of a speaker or asking for the punishment of their fellows represents a demand for coddling. I don’t agree—I think it shows people wrestling with where to redraw the lines of discourse.

Because those lines are being redrawn, and I think that’s what the whole argument is about. I am beginning to think, at the base of it, this is an argument about silence.

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August Recommended Reading

notjust_viaJohnnySilvercloudAt the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

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July Recommended Reading

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Despite traveling for most of July, I still ended up reading interesting things. So, as usual, at the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

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“Allegedly”

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“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.

So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.

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The Magic Number

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I pay attention to members of several communities that claim to value critical thought, respect for others, egalitarian ideals, social responsibility, equal opportunity, et cetera-the whole lot. And so I also can’t help noticing the disheartening sexism in these allegedly progressive groups and organizations. Somehow, people who claim to value evidence and reason happily ignore the evidence and treat the idea of their own sexism with derision, and somehow people who claim to build their philosophy on equality happily harass the women around them.

Emily Crockett has an article at Vox about an ongoing harassment scandal in a progressive organization, and the quote at the end stood out to me:

“ ‘One of the things I keep thinking about is, what is the magic number of women it would take before an allegation will be believed?’ said Karen. ‘What would have happened if only one employee would have come forward? Are we ever going to stop somebody like this after one or two victims, or is it always going to have to go on for years, and follow them across different companies, and there has to be a critical mass of complainants before people take it seriously?’ ”

That sounds awfully familiar; it sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent atheists or skeptics or Christians are exposed for their harassment of women. It sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent Democrats or Republicans are exposed for their prejudice. People keep asking, what’s the magic number? How many women have to speak up for it to be enough evidence?

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Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

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Memories of Change

sunset_viaIanBarbourThe echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.

I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.

I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.

So.

I used to be anti-abortion.

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August Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

LGBTQ Rights:

When Public Servants Refuse to Serve the Public – Garrett Epps

“Is it possible to agree on what religious freedom is not? It’s not a right to wear a Marine uniform but refuse to fight. It’s not a right to be a county clerk and decide which citizens you will serve and which you won’t. Religious “accommodation” doesn’t mean what Liberty Counsel thinks it means. If a person can perform the duties of a job with some adjustment for religious belief, that’s an accommodation. If they’re not willing to do the job, they have to leave. That’s not just a requirement of law; honor requires it as well.

Government in particular has an obligation to dismiss any employee who claims a right to discriminate against citizens. It’s not good enough to say, “Go to another county if you want a license.” It’s not good enough to say, “I won’t let anyone get married.” Those aren’t a clerk’s decisions to make.”

Racism:

Black American lives are being erased. The victors still rewrite history. – Lindy West

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with paying tribute to a big, beautiful lion whose life was sacrificed on the altar of white male insecurity. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, I suppose, with devoting column inches to an apparently dangerous racist publicly confirming that he is a dangerous racist. But we must remember that when we use the phrase “History is written by the victors”, we are talking about moments like this. This is what that looks like. The victors (ie the beneficiaries of the status quo) are writing history, in front of our eyes, in real time – deciding what will endure and what will fade away. This isn’t necessarily an overt, explicit or even conscious process – it’s often just a series of seemingly innocuous choices that add up to a slow, grinding erasure.”

Tracking Police Violence A Year After Ferguson – Donovan X. Ramsey

“Over the past few months, The Guardian and The Washington Post have published reporting projects that measure the number of civilians killed by police. The Guardian’s count for 2015 stands at 690, and the Post’s, which tracks deaths from police shootings in particular, is at 581. Both projects rely on data provided by news outlets, research groups, and the open-source reporting projects Fatal Encounters and Killed By Police. The Guardian’s and Post’s projects have captured the public’s attention, but Sabol says they lack the rigor needed to provide lasting answers. The projects are, after all, works of journalism designed to offer estimates based on available data, not official measurements.”

Sexism:

Why Can’t the FBI Identify Serial Rapists? – T. Christian Miller

“That’s what’s striking about ViCAP today: the paucity of information it contains. Only about 1,400 police agencies in the U.S., out of roughly 18,000, participate in the system. The database receives reports from far less than 1 percent of the violent crimes committed annually. It’s not even clear how many crimes the database has helped solve. The FBI does not release any figures. A review in the 1990s found it had linked only 33 crimes in 12 years.

Canadian authorities built on the original ViCAP framework to develop a modern and sophisticated system capable of identifying patterns and linking crimes. It has proven particularly successful at analyzing sexual-assault cases. But three decades and an estimated $30 million later, the FBI’s system remains stuck in the past, the John Henry of data mining. ViCAP was supposed to revolutionize American law enforcement. That revolution never came.”

It’s Weird How People Correct Me When They Think I’m a Woman – Jef Rouner

“It went on and on and on. I even saw one person (who I blocked because I don’t need to see this sort of nuttiness) on a friend’s Facebook share refer to my work as “typical white women liberal logic”, whatever the heck that means. Time after time, I was assumed to be a woman, and those who did so were usually the ones who immediately tried to mansplain away every seed of logic and well-sourced information that I had planted.”

To Have and to Hold: Reproduction, marriage, and the Constitution – Jill Lepore

“The coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary of the Court’s ruling in Griswold and its anticipated decision in Obergefell makes this, inescapably, an occasion for considering the past half century of legal reasoning about reproductive and gay rights. The cases that link Griswold to Obergefell are the product of political movements that have been closely allied, both philosophically and historically. That sex and marriage can be separated from reproduction is fundamental to both movements, and to their legal claims. Still, there’s a difference between the arguments of political movements and appeals to the Constitution. Good political arguments are expansive: they broaden and deepen the understanding of citizens and of legislators. Bad political arguments are as frothy as soapsuds: they get bigger and bigger, until they pop. But both good and bad constitutional arguments are more like blown-in insulation: they fill every last nook of a very cramped space, and then they harden. Over time, arguments based on a right to privacy have tended to weaken and crack; arguments based on equality have grown only stronger.”

‘This isn’t right’: New York City rape victim blasts police who asked if she was a drunk ‘party girl’- David Ferguson

“Having to recite her story repeatedly to openly skeptical police officials was a humiliating and degrading ordeal, Ellett said. “I had to keep retelling my story to a dude who didn’t even care, and who kept asking me to prove that I wasn’t some whore who forgot that I said that this guy could have sex with me,” she recounted.

She was then taken to the city’s Fifth Precinct headquarters where five more male police officials interrogated her. “[The officer] said, ‘Maybe you led him to believe it was okay in some way?’ I kept repeating myself and I got so frustrated. He told me, ‘If it’s his word against yours it’s gonna be years of an uphill legal battle, a lot more strife.’ He was basically deterring me from doing anything about it. I just asked him, ‘Well isn’t rape a crime? Isn’t it a felony?’” she said.”

Classism:

The Teen Who Exposed a Professor’s Myth – Ben Collins

“The theory picked up traction over the last decade, but seemed to reach an unexpected fever pitch in the last few months. Explainer websites this year used it to highlight popular myths of persecution complexes that are, as Vox put it, “stand-ins for an entire narrative about how immigrants are treated in America.” That’s from the lede of an article printed in March called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: the fake sign at the heart of a real movement.” Here, of course, is the problem: After only couple of hours Googling it, Rebecca, a 14-year-old, had found out these signs had, in fact, existed all along. Not only in newspaper listings—in which they appeared in droves—but, after further research, in shop windows, too.”

Haunted by Student Debt to the Grave – Mary Green Swig, Steven L. Swig and Roger Hickey

“Many people, including many student debt holders, may be surprised to learn that people can be pursued for student debt even into their elder years. In fact, the government is withholding Social Security payments for some retirees because their student loans have not been fully repaid. This is a growing problem that Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have asked the government to study in greater depth. “Garnishing Social Security benefits defeats the entire point of the program – that’s why we don’t allow banks or credit card companies to do it,” said Sen. McCaskill. “Social Security is the sole means of retirement income for tens of millions of Americans, and allowing those benefits to be garnished to collect student loan debt cuts a dangerous hole in our safety net.” ”

Climate Change:

Hurricane Katrina, Ten Years Later: How a Country that Bore Witness Still Plays Business as Usual – Erika Spanger-Siegfried

“The default, our reality, is still business as usual along much of our coasts. And business as usual—that is, acting as though the sea hasn’t risen and won’t keep going—is risky business. Let’s consider New Jersey, which has the memory of Katrina and the punishing first-hand experience of Sandy to guide its coastal decision making. Just last month, New Jersey adopted major changes to its Coastal Zone Management Rules that, according to the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, “do not consider the effects of sea level rise; incorporating sea level rise into the permitting process is critical if it is to meet its goal of not putting the inhabitants of the New Jersey shore at risk.” This follows on a trend of rapid re-development in highly vulnerable places, such as the Barnegat Peninsula.”

Science:

Would You Rather Lose Your Morals or Your Memory? – Vlad Chituc

“This view, that our memory is what’s most essential to our identities, is most often credited to John Locke, a 17th century British philosopher. It’s difficult, though, to test this directly—after all, you can’t really ask someone who’s lost their memory whether or not they’re the same person as someone they no longer remember. To get around this requires some thought. In past work, Strohminger and Nichols tested Locke’s hypothesis with hypothetical scenarios: imagine someone seriously injured their head and lost their memories, or they lost their sight, or they lost their moral compass, and so on. Strohminger asked people to rate how different someone would be after these kinds of accidents. “What we find consistently, really no matter how we ask this question,” Strohminger told me, “is that moral traits are what matter the most.” ”

Scientists replicated 100 recent psychology experiments. More than half of them failed – Julia Belluz

“Consider the newest evidence: a landmark study published today in the journal Science. More than 270 researchers from around the world came together to replicate 100 recent findings from top psychology journals. By one measure, only 36 percent showed results that were consistent with the original findings. In other words, many more than half of the replications failed.

“The results are more or less consistent with what we’ve seen in other fields,” said Ivan Oransky, one of the founders of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific retractions. Still, he applauded the effort: “Because the authors worked with the original researchers and repeated the experiments, the paper is an example of the gold standard of replication.” ”

Science Isn’t Broken: It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for – Christie Aschwanden

“Taken together, headlines like these might suggest that science is a shady enterprise that spits out a bunch of dressed-up nonsense. But I’ve spent months investigating the problems hounding science, and I’ve learned that the headline-grabbing cases of misconduct and fraud are mere distractions. The state of our science is strong, but it’s plagued by a universal problem: Science is hard — really fucking hard. If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.”

July Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

LGBTQ Rights:

The Real Reason Why Conservatives Like Ross Douthat Oppose The Gay Marriage Ruling – Amanda Marcotte

“In this sense, Douthat isn’t wrong that “support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop.” To accept same-sex marriage is to accept this modern idea that marriage is about love and partnership, instead of about dutiful procreation and female submission. Traditional gender roles where husbands rule over wives are disintegrating and that process is definitely helped along by these new laws allowing that marriage doesn’t have to be a gendered institution at all.”

Change Doesn’t Usually Come This Fast – Nate Silver

“I came along just a few years too soon (I was born in 1978) to really consider coming out as gay when growing up. There were no openly gay students in my high school. And there were few gay role models in American society: certainly not on television and in the movies, which invariably portrayed gay men as camp characters, or freaks, or AIDS victims.

If coming out was hard to contemplate, however, the possibility of gay marriage was unthinkable. At the time Andrew Sullivan wrote his now-famous essay in support of gay marriage in The New Republic in 1989, almost no polling firms even bothered asking questions about gay marriage. One that did — the General Social Survey — found that just 12 percent of the population was in favor of it.”

Racism:

If It Were Mega Churches, We’d Know Who Was Burning Them – Ingrid Cruz

“Having been raised in a devout Christian family, I ask myself, where are mega churches and their pastors when it comes to the burning of African-American churches? So many who would normally call these acts a desecration of sacred symbols are nowhere to be seen or heard. I’m certain that if mega churches, or predominantly white churches were burning, all TV networks would cover these fires and the perpetrators in charge of these arsons would already be caught, or there would be a strong strategy to catch them.”

Sexism:

Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk? – Ann Friedman

” “With men, we listen for what they’re saying, their point, their assertions. Which is what all of us want others to do when we speak,” Lakoff says. “With women, we tend to listen to how they’re talking, the words they use, what they emphasize, whether they smile.” Men also use the word just. Men engage in upspeak. Men have vocal fry. Men pepper their sentences with unnecessary “likes” and “sorrys.” I haven’t read any articles encouraging them to change this behavior. The supposed distinctions between men’s and women’s ways of talking are, often, not that distinct.”

Masculinity and Mass Shootings in the U.S. – Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

“Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States. And gun control is an important part of this problem. But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity. And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright–and one that many feel unjustly denied.”

Classism:

Dunkin’ CEO: $15 minimum wage is ‘outrageous’ – Jackie Wattles

“Fast food workers making about $12 per hour sounds more reasonable to Travis. He said that would be the living wage for a worker with family at home.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, however, indicates New York state’s living wage is currently $12.75 for a single adult. For a household with two working parents and two kids, it estimates each worker would need to make $18.30 an hour. The current minimum wage in New York State is $8.75 and hour.”

Activism:

Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty – Melissa Chadburn

“We started to absorb this woman’s idea that changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems, which meant absorbing the idea that people’s behavior was the source of their problems. But I knew at the core of me this was false. The problem had never been that I didn’t know the right number to call. It’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.

But the work of the initiative said otherwise. This is what we did: we gathered residents in the community and pointed out what their individual and community assets were. Nothing else. We didn’t provide services, or even find a way to coordinate between the different service providers.”

A Renegade Trawler, Hunted for 10,000 Miles by Vigilantes – Ian Urbina

“Industrial-scale violators of fishing bans and protected areas are a main reason more than half of the world’s major fishing grounds have been depleted and by some estimates over 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish have vanished. Interpol had issued a Purple Notice on the Thunder (the equivalent of adding it to a Most Wanted List, a status reserved for only four other ships in the world), but no government had been willing to dedicate the personnel and millions of dollars needed to go after it.

So Sea Shepherd did instead, stalking the fugitive 202-foot steel-sided ship from a desolate patch of ocean at the bottom of the Earth, deep in Antarctic waters, to any ports it neared, where its crews could alert the authorities. ‘The poachers thrive by staying in the shadows,’ Peter Hammarstedt, captain of the Barker, said while trying to level his ship through battering waves. ‘Our plan was to put a spotlight on them that they couldn’t escape.’ ”

Food:

How trans fats oozed into our diet and out again – Bethany Brookshire

“On June 16 the Food and Drug Administration made the final call: Trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. That means that food manufacturers have three years to ooze these cheap and useful fats out of their processed foods.

In fact, most of them already have. Trans fat —a big source of which is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils — has been the food villain of choice since 2006, when the FDA required companies to include trans fat content on food labels. Since then, the oily fats that used to lurk in everything from crackers to frosting have largely vanished — with a few exceptions, such as ice cream sprinkles and some doughnuts.

As trans fats went in and then out of style, some people blamed food companies for embracing the fats, which offered a cheaper alternative to animal products. But what trans fats brought to the world of microwave popcorn and Oreos was a bit more complicated than cost savings. And their fall from grace shows that nutrition — like any other scientific area — is subject to self-correction over time.”

The New York Times Gets It Wrong about Genetic Engineering – Henry Miller

“So what’s new? Not the genetic engineering of food, but only the techniques for accomplishing it. And the newest methods — recombinant-DNA technology, or ‘gene-splicing,’ and the new gene-editing techniques — are far more precise and predictable than their predecessors. They’re an extension, or refinement, of more-primitive techniques.

Here’s the take-home lesson: Because the techniques of molecular genetic engineering lead to greater control and certainty about the result, their use decreases the complexity of food production and the likelihood of what Spitznagel and Taleb call ‘unpredictable changes in the ecosystem.’ ”

Science:

Views of Pluto Through the Years

This is an animation showing just one little piece of the amazing data coming out of the Pluto system via New Horizons this month.

Sound Off – Peter Brennan

“Just how much noise has been added to the ocean has been revealed by the worldwide network of underwater microphones originally developed to eavesdrop on submarines. Hydrophones anchored to the continental slope off California, for instance, have recorded a doubling of background noise in the ocean every two decades since the 1960s. For whales, whose lives can be measured in centuries, the dramatic change to the environment is one that could be covered in the biography of a single whale. As a testament to that longevity, in 2007, during a traditional whale hunt, indigenous Alaskans pulled a bowhead whale out of the water with a harpoon embedded in its blubber that had been made in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1800s – a type of weapon that might have been familiar to Herman Melville.

‘It’s very likely that the individuals that were being recorded in 1956 were the same ones being recorded in 2000,’ Parks said. ‘Some of these whales were born before there were motorized vessels in the water at all.’ ”

Sarcasm: How the ‘lowest form of wit’ actually makes people brighter and more creative – Roger Dobson

“Well, that’s just great. Sarcasm, often derided as the lowest form of wit, actually makes people brighter and more creative. People on the receiving end of sarcastic comments – and those who made them – were found to be up to three times more creative in a range of tests carried out by a team of researchers from Insead, one of the world’s leading business schools, and Harvard and Columbia universities.”

Ideas:

No, it’s Not Your Opinion, You’re Just Wrong – Jef Rouner

“There’s a common conception that an opinion cannot be wrong. My dad said it. Hell, everyone’s dad probably said it and in the strictest terms it is true. However, before you crouch behind your Shield of Opinion, you need to ask yourself two questions.

  1. Is this actually an opinion?
  2. If it is an opinion how informed is it and why do I hold it?”